Fremont Island is no disappointment

Published: Thursday, April 16 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Piles of decaying brine shrimp mark the sandbar that leads to Fremont Island, a privately owned island.Piles of decaying brine shrimp mark the sandbar that leads to Fremont Island, a privately owned island.

Lynn Arave, Deseret News

FREMONT ISLAND, Weber County — John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, a pair of legendary 19th-century Western explorers, would certainly be awestruck by a visit to 21st-century Utah. That's not just because of modern technology, but because many Americans actually enjoy and savor "badlands" areas, places of no apparent worth in their day.

During a Sept. 9, 1843, trip to the island in the Great Salt Lake — the first recorded there — Fremont dubbed the isle "Disappointment Island" for its barren nature and lack of game. Carson was so bored he chiseled a cross in a rock there.

However, in the 21st century, Fremont Island is one of the most magical of places in the wondrous Great Salt Lake. It is the only privately owned isle in the lake and boasts fascinating tales of romance and a mysterious grave robber once exiled there, and scenic panoramas that are unrivaled in the Salt Lake Valley.

(Because of its private ownership, permission is required to legally visit the island.)

Some may have to switch into a "desert" gear to best enjoy Fremont. Void of all but a few trees, it isn't much different from Antelope Island. However, undeveloped, with only a few fences, it's like a trip back in time.

Peter G. Czerny, author of "The Great Great Salt Lake" book, accurately stated of Fremont Island, "For even though the island is barren it has a magical quality and those who have visited it have never lost the desire to return to it."

Today the island is used for ranching. Horses, cattle and sheep happily roam the isolated island, third-largest in the Great Salt Lake, behind Antelope and Stansbury islands. Fremont is about five miles long and more than three miles wide at its widest point.

Explorer Fremont and his party of four other men followed the Weber River and used an "India rubber" boat of that day to float to the island that they hoped was a paradise. After making surveys, they left in disappointment. The only excitement the explorers had was being threatened by an incoming thunderstorm; they felt they had to frantically row for their lives to get off the Great Salt Lake.

On April 22, 1848, Albert Carrington and a group of other Mormon pioneers boated around the Great Salt Lake and visited the isle and named it "Castle Island," for the throne-like top on its north end.

In the summer of 1850, Howard Stansbury surveyed the Great Salt Lake and gave the isle its permanent title. During the spring of 1859, Henry W. Jacob and Dan Miller of Farmington put 153 head of sheep on Fremont. They called the island "Miller's Island," though Fremont later won out as the official title.

Jean Baptiste, a Salt Lake City cemetery worker, was arrested for robbing at least 300 graves in the cemetery of clothes and jewelry in early 1862.

Brigham Young said imprisoning the man would do no good and suggested making him "a fugitive and a vagabond upon the Earth."

As such, he was banished to Fremont Island in the early spring of 1862. Water around the island was at least eight feet deep then.

There was a shack and provisions on Fremont. After six weeks there, Baptiste vanished. He had torn the roof and sides of the shack down, killed a 3-year-old heifer and cut portions of the hide into thongs, undoubtedly to make a raft to escape from the island.

What happened to Baptiste? There are many theories. The most plausible are that he drowned trying to float away from the island, or that he made his way to Montana.But Baptiste remains the specter of the island and lake because his fate remains uncertain.

The years 1871-73 featured a brief span of mining for precious metals on Fremont Island. Some 38 claims were made, but only small veins of silver, gold, copper and lead were found.

The island then became owned by the state government and Central Pacific Railroad.

In 1886, Salt Lake probate judge Uriah J. Wenner obtained possession of the island and moved there with his wife, Kate, and two small children for five years to help his battle with tuberculosis through salty, fresh air. The family loved living on the desert isle.

"I lived five consecutive years without a tree, without a neighbor and during this isolation from the world I made just one trip to mainland," Kate Wenner Noble's own diary recorded. "We learned to know ourselves, enjoy ourselves, children and books — without worrying about fashions or gossip and the like in the outside world. ... Fremont Island was my happy home, not a neglected sheep ranch as it is now."

Uriah Wenner died there on Sept. 19, 1891, and was buried on the island. The family moved away and Kate Wenner remarried. When she died on Dec. 29, 1942, her ashes were taken to the island next to her first husband that next June.

Today their graves are enclosed by a fence at the south end of the island. Their stone house foundation is also found nearby.

In 1960, the Richards family purchased the island and remains the current owner.

Visiting Fremont Island now is more desert-like than ever. With the Great Salt Lake so low, the island's shoreline is huge.

Mosquitoes and horseflies seem to love the south end of the island and were out in force to greet hikers. The grave site is here, among many cactus. Some lizards also reside on the island, but blow snakes — or any snakes — are rare these days here. An island-wide fire in 1940 apparently wiped most of them out.

Cattle have grazed this end of the isle well and cow pies have to be sidestepped everywhere.

An old tractor and farm implement sit just above the island's southeast beach. An occasional tin can, plastic bucket or pile of animal bones dot the landscape, but they are few and far between. One of the island's lone trees is also found in this area.

A few brackish wells supply water for the livestock on the island.

Moving northward, the center of Fremont rises in elevation some 800 feet. It's a steep climb in places, but it's void of most bugs up there. Some three miles distant are Castle Rock and Carson's cross.

Unusual black rocks grace the island's upper reaches, and one of them contain's Carson's cross. There is at least one small cave, and a metal pole sits atop the island's highest point.

Sweeping views are found in every direction, and a lake breeze continually blows, moderating temperatures. Most of the island is totally quiet. Only the occasional jet flying over, or a passing boat on the west side, breaks the silence. At the north end, industrial noise from lake chemical industries near Little Mountain or from the Lucin railroad causeway can sometimes be heard.

The island's isolation and postcard panoramas give it a national park-like flavor. Today, the only disappointment here is having to say goodbye to the peaceful island and return to civilization.

Lynn Arave and Taylor Arave visited Fremont Island on Sept. 25, 2008. Lynn also canoed to the island in June 1982. He obtained permission from the owners to visit on both occasions.

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